Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Elephant In The Room

I do not like to talk about how people hated their time on a dairy farm. But after 15 years involved in the dairy industry I think I have a pretty good understanding about happens on many farms.

I represent the people who have been dairy farming and have left the industry, because that is what I did. I looked at my options and decided that there were better opportunities out there, than dairy farming.

I’ve seen and read a lot of stuff over the years on dairy staffing issues, most written by dairy farmers or those closely associated to the dairy industry. Much of it is not objective because of the simple fact that they are current dairy farmers. They are still dairy farmers because they obviously don’t have a problem with the way things are currently. Therefore most of the conclusions that are made are overly positive and miss the mark, in my opinion.
If you want to know why people leave the dairy industry, it makes sense to ask the people who have left.

For the last 10 years I have read reports about employment relations on dairy farms, I’ve heard experts at discussion groups and field days talk about the issue, I’ve read the dairy exporter for years and I’ve poured over the Dairy NZ web site. There is a lot being written and said about time management, communication skills, goal setting, HR compliance, performance management, how to communicate with your foreign employees etc  but in all this time I have only heard or read of three people who actually mention the great elephant in the room.


The terms “work life balance” and “time off farm” get mentioned all the time in reports, articles and at field days. But no one actually gives it any real priority.

I thought I would outline all the dairy jobs I have had in the past and explain my experience so you can see where I am coming from.

My first real job that was not on my parent’s farm was when I was 17 years old in 1997. It was for a sharemilker who lived next door. During the summer, I would have to be on farm at 5:00am and I would get an hour for breakfast and an hour for lunch. If all went well I would be finished afternoon milking at 5:30. So that was a 10.5 hour day. I would get every 2nd weekend off.
I worked for the same employer (who is a good bugger) in between university study and after uni for a number of years and the hours stayed much the same.

After university in 1999 I went to work on a dairy farm in Dunsandal where the hours were around the 60 hours per week.

In 2009 I took a manager’s position on an 800 cow dairy farm owned by a large corporate. I got 1 day off every week, but as manager you were still responsible for the farm on your day off. I ended up working 80 hours per week.

I relief milked on a property near Invercargill at Christmas 2008 on an 800 cow farm. The sharemilker employed two staff and was waiting for a Pilipino. The person who got the cows in was getting on farm at 3:00 am in order to have cups on at 4:30. They would finish milking and have 30 a minute breakfast and 30 min to an hour for lunch before heading out to get the cows in at 1:00pm. Milking finished at 6:00pm. This worked out to be a 13 hour day if they got an hour for breakfast and an hour for lunch (which they didn’t). The two staff would alternate getting the cows in so every day was not a 13 hour day. If you didn’t get the cows in you got an extra 1 ½ hours’ sleep and did an 11.5 hour day (Yeah). I later learned the sharemilkers wife left him and went back to Holland.

Gillian Searle did a study called “The reality of a career in the dairy industry” for her Kellogg Rural Leadership Course in 2002. She conducted a survey of dairy farm employees.
The survey found:
60% of respondents had been in their current position for less than 6 months.
45% of respondents received 2 days off a fortnight.
58% expected to work more than 60 hours per week in the spring.
63% expected to work more than 50 hours per week in the summer.
55% expected to work more than 50 hours per week in the autumn.
Over 90% of people said they enjoyed their job or nearly always enjoyed their job.

One of Gillian’s conclusions were:
The primary weakness of dairy farm jobs for employees under the age of thirty are the
long hours of work.

My old lecturer at Lincoln Rupert Tipples has done a lot of work in this area and has published quite a few papers. Here are a few excerpts:
Dairy farming is often seen by young people as hard, dirty work with long, unsociable hours. Wilson & Tipples found the dairy farmers/dairy farm worker population worked longer hours than the New Zealand working population; 40 percent of employees, 45 percent of employers and 49 percent of those self-employed without employees worked over 60 hours per week compared to 10 percent of the total New Zealand working population working more than 60 hours per week. (Wilson & Tipples, 2008). Certainly, long working hours are an issue.
In addition to the long working days, rosters are typically long. They are routinely 11 days on and 3 days off or 12 on and four off (Pangborn, 2010). These factors led a Caring Dairying project brief (2010) to suggest that many large dairy farms are not farming in a socially responsible way.

These two reports back up what my experience has been. That dairy farmer’s work long hours compared to the rest of the country.

I was staggered, but not really surprised to read the figure reported in Gillian’s report that 60% of staff had only been in their current job for less than 6 months! That shows a huge turnover rate of staff. I believe this figure because; again my experience has been the same.

After running my own business for 5 years I stepped back from the day to day running of the business and took a manager’s position on an 800 cow corporate dairy farm in 2009. I moved my family to this remote part of Canterbury and looked forward to experiencing and learning from a well-resourced and professional company.

When I got there in September, all but 1 of the original staff (who started in June) was still there. The manager had gone and a steady stream of farm hands had come and gone before I got there. On my first day at work, one worker announced after morning milking that was not coming back after breakfast. The farm was constantly under staffed, as soon as we recruited a new staff member another one left, leaving us under staffed, which again increased the hours worked for every one else.

I left after 3 months. It was no surprise to learn later that all the remaining staff had left by the end of the season.

The Dairy NZ “Go Dairy” website has a “day in the life of adairy farmer” page. The example day starts at 5:00am and finishes at 5:00pm, with an hour for breakfast and an hour for lunch.
Let’s assume we use an 11 days on 3 days off roster as mentioned above by Ruppert. So in the first 7 days of the roster they will work a 70 hour week (Mon-Sun@10hr/day) then the remaining week they will work 40 hours (Mon-Thur@10hr/day) before having three days off. So they work 110 hours before a break.

Even the web site designed to promote dairying (and you would think they would give a best case example) has a worker working a 10 hour day.

In 2004 I started my business in Invercargill and I employed a delivery driver. I would often get a call at about 4:30 in the afternoon from a customer wanting an item delivered. I would say to the driver “on your way home at 5:00, can you just do this delivery quickly?” After a few weeks our driver said to me “every time I do a delivery on my way home, I end up working an extra 30min that I don’t get paid for”. Now I was a bit taken back, on the farm I had always worked until the job was done. But I was concerned that the level of customer service would suffer if my driver was reluctant to do late deliveries. So I agreed that I would pay him for 40 hours per week and if he did any hours over that I would pay him time and half. A normal week for my employees is 8:00am to 5:00pm Mon-Fri with 30 min for lunch and morning and afternoon tea breaks. That works out to be 42.5 hour per week.

I let my staff manage their own workload, so as long as customer demand is being met promptly and they are achieving the various KPI’s that I measure. Then I don’t really care when they do it. When we are really busy in the winter months, I am always encouraging my team to conduct deliveries on Saturday mornings or do a few late nights if you need to in order to fit all the deliveries in. Sometimes they do.

The interesting point is over the last 8 years I have employed 5 or 6 delivery drivers and I can count on one hand the amount of times any one of them has worked more than a 47 hours in a single week. It’s not like they don’t have lots of work to do, because they do. They are free to work whatever hours they like as long as it is at least 42.5 hours per week. While not scientific, this example says to me that there is a point, where given a choice an employee will decide that the extra money is not worth the sacrifice of their free time.

The hours required by employers on New Zealand dairy farms is in my opinion the single biggest deterrent to attracting and retaining people in the industry. I believe until this issue is taken seriously by dairy farmers, they will continue to struggle to attract and retain good staff.

We need to be honest about these issues and talk about them. So feel free to let me know if you think I'm wrong? 

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